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Sigiriya

We spent a couple of weeks in Sri Lanka, with a little bit of cycling. Sri Lanka airlines fly direct Heathrow to Colombo. They have a generous 30kg luggage allowance and are perfectly amenable to carrying bikes.

The trip planning was slightly muddled. We had decided what we wanted to do at the start, and at the end, and we had to work out a way to meet in the middle. We tried to plan to do the walk up Adam’s Peak but we’d not been able to book a hotel near there for sure, though this wouldn’t have been any problem. In the end we took a fancy to an interesting road near Belihul Oyu – serendipity indeed, as this was the highlight of the cycling.

We booked all hotels in advance though this wouldn’t have been necessary. Hotels on the coast seemed to be getting booked up but the ones inland were not all full.

It has to be said that the weather we had was not as good as expected.

There are busy main roads and less busy roads and quiet narrow roads. Roads can be new and smooth or half destroyed by floods or landslides. Sometimes we found it hard to plan a route without including some main road but perhaps a longer and better thought out tour could have done so. It appears that some organised tour groups use main roads. It would have been great to find routes linking tea-estate tracks, but these aren’t mapped and may be private.

Route-finding was often tricky as the invention of the signpost is treated with some suspicion. Fortunately Sri Lanka is liberally supplied with helpful people at every road junction.

The food is good. The default curry and rice lunch is a number of varied vegetable curries; you can have meat or fish as well. Breakfast local-style is string hoppers (rice vermicelli) with potato curry and dhal.

Sigirya and Polonnaruwa

Sigiriya gardens

Sigiriya

We hired a taxi to take us from Negombo to Sigiriya. This is easy enough to arrange – the day we arrived we wandered down the road where there are many small agencies and we asked in the first one we saw open. Tourist taxis seem all to be minibuses, perfect for bikes, and the price was reasonable. It may be worth remarking that the driver doesn’t turn up in the morning until you ring to confirm – once you know this, everything is smooth and as expected. It was a 4 hour drive.

In the afternoon we rode to Royal Cave Temple. There’s a small modern temple near the road and from here there’s a wonderful lost-world climb up jungle-covered flights of steps between rocks, up to a brick-built reclining Buddha. From here it’s possible to clamber to the summit though we didn’t try this because it was a little wet.

We did the somewhat scary Sigiriya rock fortress the next morning, and rode to Giritale in the afternoon. The obvious route is to pick the minor road through Gallinda that meets the A11 just east of Habarana. This is not signposted and you have to ask, and you have to ask more than one person. The minor road is lovely and narrow and quiet; the main road to Giritale new, smooth and tolerable as main roads go but a little more of a chore than a pleasure. It is fairly flat here.

Fri 4 Jan 2013: 47km, 212m ascent. Hotel Deer Park.

Polonnaruwa

  
Again the ride to Polonnaruwa is main road, but it’s not that far. It was a Saturday and we were struck by the number of racing cyclists out on the road – young guys with the proper kit, riding seriously though on the local single-speed utility bikes.

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is fabulous. It’s a vast site with a huge variety of monuments. We didn’t look at many pictures beforehand which made it all the more exciting to come across outlandishly sized stupas, lost-world temples and achingly beautiful rock-cut statues.

Sat 5: 43km, 188m.

Matale and Kandy

From Giritale there’s a minor road through Elahera, flat at first following a canal and climbing towards the end where it meets the main road at Naula. There are plenty of places for lunch on the main road.

Basking in the sun

 

Nalanda Gedige

We took the 1km detour to Nalanda Gedige, a peaceful temple among trees above a reservoir. Our hotel was Jim’s Farm Villas, a really luxurious place in the middle of a big estate in the middle of nowhere, with a pool and giant prawns for dinner. The road from the main road was a lovely ride albeit eyewateringly steep and it would have been wonderful to do the tour all on quiet roads like this.

Sun 6: 82km, 696m


Moggie

Next day it rained and rained heavily. We tried to find a minor road alternative to Kandy via Gammaduwa and Rattota, but were told by a taxi driver on the appropriate junction it wasn’t passable. The reasons were not clear but it was possibly because a bridge was down. Matale was the most horrible place we’ve ever ridden through. This was followed by a dismal wet ride on the b-road to Kandy through Wattegama which was nothing special. Matale’s reign as most awful place in world is short lived because Kandy is much much worse. It’s the buses. The people are nice but the buses are out to kill you. The Villa Rosa hotel is gruellingly uphill but you go past a very good cake shop. Do not eat the cake until you have got to the hotel because the last stretch up the drive is a killer.

Mon 7: 59km, 616m


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We had a so-called rest day and the weather decided to be nice. Villa Rosa doesn’t have a pool so we had to go cycling. We muddled our way to do the three-temples loop : Galadeniya, Lankatilake, Embekke. I do not really know exactly where we went and I would not recommend our route because it was far from optimal. I suspect whatever you have to do involves some element of infuriating or tedious main road. Once you find the temples road it is a pleasant ride and the temples, all 14th century, are worth seeing and are not much visited by foreign tourists.

Tues 8: 53km, 601m

Kandy to Belihul Oya.

Rock outcrop

Once you’re out of town and getting out is an epic, there’s a nice quiet road to the tea museum. It climbs steadily through lush tea estates to a pass. We had low cloud and mist pretty much all the day so I can’t comment much on the scenery. After the pass the road surface is very beaten up with a lot of washout damage. There is very little traffic. A bit more of a climb then a long bumpy downhill towards Galaha where there are biscuit shops. The track arrives at a tarmac road where it is left and uphill to Galaha proper, a busy little place. From the centre, the right turn called the Pupuressa road is actually the road to Pupuressa, which is helpful. The road climbs then descends to a small village with a couple of eateries.

Ramboda falls

The map marks a minor road from here to above Ramboda. In Pupuressa you basically turn right, drop a little to a valley then climb to a tea estate and private road. Here we asked the way and got conflicting answers. There is a low road and high road through the estate and I guess both routes end up at the main road but we reckoned we wanted the higher as it was probably more interesting. The road did not inspire confidence in its ability to take you somewhere. At one point was unhelpfully barred with some broken-down bamboo – though a nearby tea-picker told us it was ok to go through.

Twilight at Ramboda

In fact it was only barred to protect some newly laid concrete. Soon after this it was track, and all very pleasant. The track climbs to a T-junction where it looked from the map we would want to go left; everybody we asked said we had to go right. So we reached the main road sooner that we’d have liked. Ramboda Falls hotel is ok; the scenery all around is spectacular and the falls are awesome. The hotel is down a lengthy 1:3 drive.

Weds 9: 59km, 1320m


Biscuit shop

View from Dickoya

Adam’s Peak from Dickoya

 
   

Upper Glencairn Bungalow

The day we rode from Ramboda to Dickoya it rained a lot so there’s not much we can be very enthusiastic about. The road through Pundalu Oya to Talawakele was good and quiet and I would guess scenic on a better day. And on a better day we’d have taken a longer and more interesting route to Hatton than the main road, which was very chewed up with roadworks or weather damage. We stayed at the Upper Glencairn Bungalow, whose views of Adam’s Peak, tea, hot showers and old fashioned charm saved the day.

Thurs 10: 59km, 1123m

Norwood to Balangoda was a long ride on a delightful quiet narrow road through tea estates and small friendly villages. There was some sort of festival on, and lots of people, mainly schoolkids, were heading down the road. One older man said something to us, which rather worryingly sounded like you’re going the wrong way. Ever since the end of the Kumaon trip we’ve been acutely nervy about going a long, long unsalvageable way down a road to find it impassable. For a long bone-chilling time after Balangoda we saw no motor traffic. It was not raining all that much now and the scenery was big and very green tea clad hills and it was a rather nice quiet road, though for once perhaps we would have liked to see the odd car. A cruel steep finish took us to the summit, and a truly marvellous long descent first through forests and steep cliffs and then tea estate slopes, extensive views over foothills, a descent we replayed over and over in daydreams the next day.

We had lunch at the main-road junction and rode a few more km on the main road to the Landa holiday house before Belihul Oya. This is a gorgeous quiet spot, a new place with 5 rooms with balconies overlooking mango trees and a stream below. There wasn’t an awful lot to do here but it was a great place to do nothing.

Fri 11: 57km, 817m

Our rest day came with some halfway convincingly unrainy weather and we pootled up the lane towards Galagama falls, discussing Time and Work in England during the Industrial Revolution. We didn’t see any falls but the scenery’s dramatic enough and we climbed 1000m.

Sat 12: 24km, 814m


Bambarakanda Falls

Jeep track

Belihul Oya to Nanu Oya

As I said earlier the planning was somewhat thrown together. We had first intended to arrange do the walk up Adam’s Peak, but to do it properly this would involve walking up so as to see the dawn and although that sounds lovely, before dawn is actually night. Also, there are leeches.

But we had found an alternative more suited to cyclists and those fond of sleep. We had come across some tempting images on Google Earth and fragmentary information about an interesting road going up from Belihul Oya, described as a jeep road of seasonably variable passability. The rough guide map marks a white-road from Belihul Oya towards Ohiya and we imagined this was it. The map also marks a yellow road taking a different route. We called this yellow-road the "main" road and assumed it was new and had tarmac. In the planning stage we had already booked a hotel near Nuwara Eliya, and we found a promising place at Belihul Oya. What we didn’t think about was whether it was feasible to do the ride in one day. We just forgot to do this.

As usual we didn’t take it for granted that any road was passable and we asked at the hotel before we left. Although they assumed we would go back through Hatton, they gave the impression there was no obstacle to the more northerly route.

Still climbing

How to ride fords

At about the appropriate distance along the main road, there’s a couple of shops. This place is called Kalupahana. There is a very small left turn which is unsignposted except to Bambarakanda Eco-Lodge. Not, for instance, Worlds End. We asked at the shops and we asked a taxi driver. The verdict – albeit not unanimous – was that it did go to Worlds End. It was a nice small narrow road. We asked everybody we saw along the way, all two of them; they said it went to Worlds End, and nobody mentioned landslides – not that the absence of any mention of landslides was at all reassuring. The road made for a marvellous panorama of cliffs. Sure enough it steadfastly climbed. We ate biscuits and we saw some extraordinary flowers. Then we saw Bambarakanda Falls and soon after passed the Eco-Lodge, a small and basic place.

Then the tarmac stopped and we had some sort of brick paving for a while, and then I think it turned to dirt; I can’t remember all the things this road did, because it did all sorts of things. It climbed and zigzagged, and at an especially steep and slightly vertigious section it turned into boulders. Occasionally there was a bit of tar but no way was this road becoming more convincing. We crossed a side ridge and the road cornered a valley and here we saw some local tourists on a camping trip. Further up there was a poor-looking village, with no vehicles except for a derelict van.

Ahead was the still impressively high wall of cliffs. We stopped for biscuits and tried to guess where the road went and it wasn’t a happy prospect. Any gouged line in the trees that might have been the road invariably featured some landslidey sections. There were still a few tyre marks on the road even up here, which left us with some hope, because something must have come along here from further away from the village.

Still climbing

Brief descent

Actually the road headed rightwards over a ridge and didn’t go anywhere near those cliffs. This was a long bouldery drag, up to and past another small village and into tea-plantation. The weather was staying dry, sometimes even sunny, but often swirling back into mist. We reached a junction. The right hand, slightly looking like the main way, was marked going to the Managers Bungalow. Nothing else, no Worlds End nor Ohiya nor nothing. I think the way we’d come was marked to Kalupahana. I rather resented this because it suggested Kalupahana was worth mentioning and nothing above was worth mentioning. We tried the right-hand way hoping I suppose that the Managers Bungalow would appear soon and we could ask someone. It didn’t. The roadside was all very pretty with forest and rocks and streams and so forth but we weren’t in the mood and would much rather have seen people.

We reached a pass and from here could see the road dropped very steeply into a dense mist. We didn’t like the look of this – we were expecting to have an uninterrupted climb (though to be fair these hardly ever exist and we know that) and we didn’t want to risk a long descent that might be wrong. Moreover it just didn’t feel quite right. We turned back and tried the other way.

World’s End

This led shortly to a barrier behind which was a very nicely kept bungalow in gardens and no more road. There was nobody here. The best we could do was try the Managers Bungalow road again.

This time the mist was less and we could see a ridge beyond, and villages on the ridge. The descent was a few sharp bends below a steep rock cliff, then a slow climb again. After the start of the village we saw what we weren’t expecting : white people, a tour group. They said they were walking down the road from World’s End. They said it was steep (bad); the guide said it was 3km (good). We followed what seemed to constitute the road and climbed interminably. We kept imagining the vague lines in the forest were the main road was above us but we were always proved wrong.

Views of the Horton Plains

We had clearly missed the walkers’ route; though Colin thought he had seen an alternative track soon after we’d talked to them, perhaps this was all to the good, as to climb in 3km, what we eventually climbed, would not have been a ride. There was a scattered amount of settlement and a large tea factory and a sign indicating that this track did go to Ohiya which was kind of reassuring except that we’d rather be going more pointing towards Worlds End than Ohiya which was the wrong way from Nuwara Eliya but at least it was going somewhere and if we were totally stuck roadwise in Ohiya it was on the railway line to Nuwara Eliya. Actually I half fancied a rail trip but I didn’t let on about this.

We did not pay much attention to the village nor the road that continued although the scenery really was very nice but the village did not have any biscuit shops. The track got us to the top of a ridge and shortly after did indeed meet a fine tarmac road. Which climbed and climbed through beautiful pristine forests unsullied by biscuit shops.

Did someone mention cake?

Through the trees, and fabulous trees they were, we saw the cliffs of World’s End. We thought we must be near the top. The road threw us some steep hairpins decorated with lovely trees. Then we were up. Horton plains is an otherworldly plateau of grassland and strange trees.

Also you have to pay to enter, and that means paying just to go along the road. Not only is there an entrance fee but a service charge and 20% tax on top. This is very annoying, all the more so when the officials are reluctant to give change and spend hours faffing about with special forms in triplicate to permit us to ride 5km along a road, when you really can’t afford to lose any time. It was now 3pm, with something like 40km or more to the hotel and an unknown and possibly significant amount of climbing to come. We had not yet had lunch. The 40km wouldn’t have taken too long if we hadn’t had several morally unavoidable delays. We saw three cyclists mending a puncture and no way can you not stop to chat. They were Russians on their way to Haputale. They said there were four more in their party – each of whom we encountered riding solo in the next few km, each of whom we felt it would be unfair not to greet. Then there was a visitor centre, which had food, and we certainly had to eat. Then the scenery became irresistably alluring and distractingly photogenic; it paraded unforgettable sights of fairytale ridges and Adam’s peak beyond, demanding a photo, and half a mile later, demanding another, and another.

A little ride in the tea trails

The road dropped steeply to a flatter area leading to Nuwara Eliya. To the east unknown peaks floating above a sea of mist slowed our would-be screamer descent. In the west the sun descended and the sky took on different pinker shades demanding more photographs. We rode through a market gardening area and here there were turnips, and there were shops full of biscuits clamouring to be eaten.

Bandarawela

Ella Gap

Talpe fishermen

Singers at a wedding

Local bike transport

We made it to the main road at about 6pm. We had 8km to go to the hotel and no idea whether this would be up or down. All we knew were a few princessy comments on Trip advisor about the terrible road (strangely, this made the hotel all the more appealing to us). In fact it was mostly down and the road was fine and we got there without needing lights. There was a short climb of about 50m to the hotel. A couple of other guests saw us ride up; they remarked that we must be tired from riding up that big hill.

Sun 13: 85km, 2494m. Hotel Langdale.

The next day the weather had really changed to full sunshine. We swam in the pool and we ate cake. We went for a little ride in the local tea trails.

Mon 14: 6km, 205m

Galle bike

 

Galle Moggie : Galle cyclists

Ella and Galle

The last proper day of cycling we rode to Ella, to stay at the fabulous Planter’s Bungalow just downhill out of town. Nuwara Eliya is disorientingly English-looking. There weren’t many options for the ride and it’s just the main road to Welimada. We tried an alternative, descending 300m on a superb smooth road only to find a road-closed barrier. Mostly it was downhill. Bandarawela is huge and busy. Beyond there the road was ok. Ella is a gringo hangout; we had a juice at some Jamaican-themed place full of self-absorbed white people. Ella gap is a spectacular ride down and Planter’s bungalow is a fantastic place to end the ride.

Tues 15: 91km, 1314m

We got a taxi to Galle. It’s not too long a trip – the road to the coast is quiet. The government is ploughing a lot of money into the south-coast tourist infrastructure. We drove along fragments of a vast new dual carriageway and passed an airport under construction.

Talpe beach

The new town is nothing special but the old fort is a delight. The old town is rapidly turning into a tourist ghetto but right now it has charming hotels but it’s also a real place with real inhabitants and real mosques.

There are express buses on the wide new motorway which goes to Colombo – almost. It was easy to put the bikes on the bus but they stop somewhere outside the centre. We had assumed there would be taxis at the bus station but it isn’t a bus station and there are no taxis. We rode into the city centre and part of the way out – somewhat desperately – and at last found a pair of tuk-tuk drivers willing to take us to Negombo.

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